Cycling Towards Syria: Days 1-3

I’m writing this sitting on the beach front in Calais. A mother and two small children are scootched in the sand, and footprints mark where they’ve been playing. The wind and the waves come across the Channel from England. We’ve been pulling together a bench lunch, interrupted by an Englishman complaining about wogs and A-rabs, insistent on leaving the EU, while registering his van in Serbia for cheaper car insurance.

The first few days of this cycle have been about settling into a rhythm. We were sped on our way by a peloton of riders from London (so much thanks to Maryla, James and Grizzly) and pitched up the first night on the summit of Great Lines Heritage Park in Chatham. Up there, overlooking the twinkles of the Medway towns, the shouts and curses of boyracers drunk on the soakings of the May Day celebrations fade out into the wind.

Our camp snuck in the shrubbery between the fence of a college and the dog walking paths. Barking snuffles made an effective alarm clock. First and second breakfasts dragged us through the early miles, until we were flying through Faversham and whistling into Whitstable.

We were generously hosted by David Robert, editor of Cycling World magazine. David and his flirtatiously entwined cats served us heroic vegetable stew – potatoes, carrots, beetroot, topped with a dumpling crust – and we shared a Pepsi bottle filled with a dark pale ale from The Black Dog.

The next morning, David and his partner Fiona loaded us up with several breakfasts and half a dozen freebie cereal bars he’s been pressed to review (the quinoa ones get five stars from me). I took the opportunity to courier over 3kgs of badly packed excess baggage back home. Nothing says “packed in a rush” more eloquently than leaving overweight.

On our way out of town we dropped in on Bruce Williams, an artist friend of David’s who took his 1960s ambulance over to Calais last November, loaded with wood fire logs and bicycles. You can hear our conversation by playing the YouTube video below.

Whitstable briefly hosted an asylum detention centre, which provoked a response from the town’s more sympathetic citizens. Since last year, the Whitstable Calais Solidarity group has grown to more than 500 members and some of the most active have taken alms and aid as far afield as Greece.

The closest English county to the continent, Kent seems to be home to partizans of both sides: the heartland of UKIP, but also bastion of welcoming communities such as that which has grown around Whitstable.

The afternoon was spent in a bright cycle over the downs, through the cobbles of Canterbury, screaming past the castle and into Dover. A Dovorian bearing a fish and chip happy kid directed us up Military Hill to the Drop Redoubt, where we camped.

The redoubt is a Napoleonic era fort whose sharp sides and terrace steps are perfect for haring dogs and chastened rabbits. The grass we pitched on overlooked the port and the red and white lights of ferries slowly crossing for Calais. We lit a fire, smoked a couple of herbal teas, and settled for the night. The continent awaits.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at

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